Not so long ago, the world’s oldest profession plied its trade on the street – or street corners, to be exact. Hookers were forced to hustle alongside gangsters, drug lords and pimps in a melting pot of crime, violence and addiction. It was a dark and dangerous underworld, where red neon signs flashed above sex shops and sleazy late-night bars crawled with booze-fuelled patrons.
And then, in the early noughties, things began to change. Neon signs still flashed but on PC monitors and mobile phones. The sex industry, valued conservatively at $186billion, had finally innovated. New, ‘disruptive’ technologies, were empowering prostitutes and offering them a degree of relative safety on the World Wide Web; the internet had removed the need for many of them to take to the streets in the first place. Instead, advertisements for sexual services began to flourish on dedicated websites and on classified ad sites. Depending on how you looked at it, red light districts everywhere were either shrinking or expanding exponentially. Prostitution, though no less prevalent, had at least become less visible.
In recent months, world leaders generally, and Donald Trump in particular, have vowed to crack down on websites facilitating prostitution. In April, the US President enacted a new law that forces website operators to monitor and police their content. Trump described the bill – the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA — as a “common sense” measure. Since then, however, sex workers have reported being forced back on to the streets and into the hands of pimps and crime lords.
It is here, at this political impasse, where Pimple, Ryan Weeks’ thought-provoking debut novel, is set. It’s a clever, darkly humorous book that explores the role of disruptive technology on the near future of the sex industry. It follows the development of an innovative new app called ‘Pimple’ which, if you’ll forgive the pun, changes The Game forever.
The book, (out now through Amazon UK, tells the story of four very different sets of people: the app’s female creators; the prostitutes who sign up for what they hope will be a safer and more profitable way of doing business; the ruthless pimps who violently object to the loss of their livelihoods; and the police officers who must enforce the laws that ban prostitutes and pimps from plying their trade.
Pimple’s central character, Annie O’Mahoney, is a ‘tech evangelist’ who becomes disillusioned by her experiences within the world of financial technology after a High Street bank takes over her promising start-up. With time and money on her hands, Annie looks for a rewarding way to invest her skills and capital. A rise in violent crime against female sex workers prompts her to consider a way that technology could improve their lives. And, with the help of her closest friend Veronica, Pimple - an ‘Uber’, of sorts, for the sex industry – is born.
The app, as the name suggests, frees women from the abusive grip of pimps and enables them to pick and choose their own customers based on a rating system similar to Uber and Airbnb.
But the pimps, and the police, are not happy. The evolution of the app sees events spiral out of control. When Veronica begins to doubt the morality of the project, the lives of all those involved are plunged into danger before reaching a violent conclusion.
Despite the subject matter, Pimple avoids tawdry sexual encounters and instead relies on gritty, though not smutty, realism to capture and retain your attention from the get-go. The originality of the story and the descriptive language more than make up for the frequent bouts of dialogue inauthenticity; it’s hard to imagine the following conversation between two young women actually taking place: “If we are to be serious about this, then let us be serious.” “Oh, you old bore!”.
Weeks himself is something of a mover and shaker within the world of ‘fintech’ (that’s financial technology to you and me). Which of course makes sense: only someone with an insider’s perspective could possibly foresee the realistic consequences of disruptive technology in the way he does. He’s also a Millennial (that’s relative youngsters to you and me) who is not afraid to poke fun at the world of technology and the lifestyle of his peers (his description of the London brunch scene is a witty case in point).
At a little over 200 pages, Pimple is a ‘read-in-a-single-sitting’ novel. But it’s also a brave attempt to sincerely question the impact of disruptive technology on society.